Weight Widens the Pay Gap
Plus-size women get hit doubly with workplace discrimination, and it's costing them.
Does the number on your bathroom scale weigh on what you earn at work? Recent analysis from Lancaster University confirms that there is a weight pay gap, but that’s not the whole story. People being paid less, mistreated, or even fired from their jobs based on someone else's judgement of their appearance is all too common — and it's not against the law.
I thought about this connection between body type, perceptions of health and the pay gap while watching the Hulu series Shrill, which was recently greenlit for a second season. The show follows Annie (played by Aidy Bryant), a plus-size Millennial writer in Portland, Oregon, as she navigates life with her roommate, her friends, a deadbeat boyfriend — and no shortage of infuriating comments about her body.
In a coffee shop, a fitness coach tells her there’s a smaller, thinner person inside of her, waiting to get out. Annie’s mother pressures her to eat expensive and unpalatable low-calorie pre-made meals. I was enraged on Annie’s behalf, on behalf of writer Lindy West, upon whose book and life the story was based, and on the many other women navigating body-shaming and worse. It’s known that women make less than their male counterparts in nearly every profession — but plus-sized women, like the fictional Annie, can take a double hit. A 2018 survey done by LinkedIn in the United Kingdom found that people who are classified as obese earned on average $2,512 less than their thinner counterparts. Overweight or obese women dealt with an even steeper penalty of a whopping $11,547 gap in pay from what men who are also overweight earn.
This bias is expressed in Shrill by Annie’s boss, Gabe Parrish (played by John Cameron Mitchell). Parrish declares that overweight or obese people are lazy, cost too much in terms of health insurance, and are generally a drag on the company. “Why should I have to subsidize other people’s healthcare problems,” Parrish yells at Annie, shaming her in front of the entire office. Dramatic as the scene may have been, the sad truth is that Parrish vocalizes biases that many people hold, consciously or not.
But here’s the thing: the weight pay gap is connected to two myths around how we think about weight. The first myth is that being heavier is somehow outside the bounds of being “average.” In reality, the average American is plus-sized, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also found that 71.6 percent of Americans over 20 were classified as overweight between 2015 and 2016. The average dress size for American women is between size 16 and 18. Treating people at the plus end of the spectrum as if they’re “over” a certain acceptable weight misses the point that they are, more likely, the norm and not the exception.
Meanwhile, the metric used to determine whether a person is overweight or not is based on the body mass index, or BMI, which is considered a measurement of health based on weight and height. But the BMI is more than 100 years old and is often discredited as an effective health metric. Furthermore, it's in no way a gauge of work ethic.
“BMI is a pretty decent measure of body fat if you're trying to describe a population,” says Dr. Patricia Smith, an economist at the University of Michigan. “If you're trying to predict health risks for a population for its costs, [BMI data is] pretty low cost to collect and it does a fair job at the population level.” This is why employers — and more importantly, health insurance companies — have used BMI to assess health risks and insurance costs. But Dr. Smith notes that on an individual level, the BMI is just not accurate. For example, if you’re an athlete or have dense bone structure, you might register as overweight, regardless of living a fit and healthy lifestyle.
This brings us to the second weight myth: that overweight or obese people have more health problems and therefore cost more in terms of health insurance. The research doesn’t back that idea up. A 2011 study from York University found that obese people who were active and ate a healthy diet lived just as long as their non-overweight counterparts, and were also less likely to die of cardiovascular disease. The same research team found in 2018 that metabolically healthy obese people don’t have an increased mortality rate when compared to slimmer people. Yet another study from the University of California, Los Angeles reviewed 40,000 records of health data from 2005 to 2012 from the Centers for Disease Control. Half of the participants were overweight, and about a third were considered obese, again determined by the BMI. Similar to the findings of the York University studies, UCLA researchers found that there wasn’t a link between BMI and cardio-metabolic health. In fact, 47 percent of those considered overweight were actually healthy, and 29 percent of those considered obese were also healthy. Thirty percent of those with a so-called healthy BMI were not actually metabolically healthy.
In other words, being considered overweight or obese doesn't necessarily mean you’re unhealthy or run a higher risk of weight-related mortality. So it’s not a reliable predictor of how much you might cost an insurance provider (and, thus, your employer). It certainly isn’t a reliable predictor of office productivity. And we don't even need to gratify the "lazy" assumption with any research — that's just a hurtful and ignorant thing to say.
So how does this show up in the workplace?
Weight bias is yet another form of unconscious or implicit bias, or an internalized social stereotype against a group of people based on a characteristic they can't control, like weight. Dr. Smith argues that in terms of fairness and economic efficiency, becoming aware of weight bias is essential. “If you're judging people on who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets to go to professional development training based on their weight, you're likely to make a mistake. You want [employees] to work well with others. You want them to be productive, and does weight really have anything to do with that? For most jobs, it doesn't,” she says.
Actively working against implicit bias — just like actively increasing racial and gender diversity or being inclusive toward working parents — makes for better business. One of the biggest hurdles to overcoming salary unfairness based on body type is that body type is not actually a protected class in most places, according to Mindy Gulati, an attorney and diversity, equity and inclusion consultant. That means it’s not considered discrimination to pay a heavier person differently than you would a slimmer one. In fact, in 49 states, it is legal to fire someone because of their appearance. Michigan is the only state where the law has been challenged and upheld to protect employees based on body type.
Gulati notes that executives are starting to see that body type biases have the potential to hurt companies, and mentioned a recent conversation she had with a senior tech executive. He realized that he interviewed some candidates differently from other applicants to his sales team. “He would ask questions like ‘Can you keep up? Are you fast enough? Do you have the stamina for this role?’ He realized those were words and phrases he was not using with all candidates,” Gulati says. The executive realized that this sort of bias was influencing his hiring and promotion decisions, causing him to miss out on great candidates based on irrelevent metrics, and surely holding his company back.
It has taken shamefully long for companies to realize this oversight when it comes to fair hiring of women, people of color, LGBTQ people — it shouldn't be hard to realize they've been perpetrating the same treatment based on body type, as well.
Which brings us back to Shrill and the way that Annie helps us examine what it means to be a plus-sized woman in the working world, and how it might be time for laws that specifically protect this type of worker. “When legislation passed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and gender, we can see jumps in productivity based on economic growth and labor productivity measures,” says Dr. Smith. “I suspect we could see the same thing if we could prevent discrimination on the basis of weight as well.” In the absense of any such legal protections, Annie quits her job at the end of season 1. Here’s hoping that next season, she lands somewhere that sees her value — and pays her for it.